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Topic: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation software

  1. #1

    The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation software

    Hello -

    Last year, 2012, marked the 30th Anniversary of my graduation from music college (Berklee College of Music). It is a period in my life that I hold dear to my heart. I was young, single and LOVING the life in the city of Boston. Oh, and Berklee was fun too! LOL! It is also a time when much of what we use now in the world of music hasn't been developed yet. There was no MIDI back in 1982. Although there were computers, one needed a degree in "computer language" in order to effectively use them; computers were not available to the masses back in 1982 as they are now. With regards to electronic music, everything available to the masses was analog (including synthesizers) and I simply do not remember hearing the word "digital" back then. (But then again, I sometimes don't remember my own name. LOL!) I say all of this because I grew up composing music by using "Pencil to Manuscript Paper". Although I could be wrong, notation software was not invented then (for those crude computers).

    Now, I KNOW that I am not alone with this type of history. Some of you around my age or older (and I say that with respect) learned composition the same way, using "Pencil to Manuscript Paper". However most of you, despite age and experience, seem to be using notation software as part of your process in composing music. To this I say, "Wow! I guess I'm behind the times!" LOL!

    Now, I've owned notation software since around 1991/1992. I still have the original disks to Finale 1998 neatly tucked away in my studio closet (along with dozens of other now-outdated software programs). Actually, I owned another notation program purchased around 1991/1992, but I don't remember the name of that particular program. (I think it was called "Music Printer Plus", but I could be wrong.) Because I hold memories of being frustrated in using these earlier notation programs, because I hold memories of wanting to pull my hair out in trying to get them to reliably work without crashing my now-ancient computer, I've been reluctant to fully learn and use them now that they've been refined and made more dependable. I still use the old "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" method when composing the more "serious" (orchestral) projects. This is not to say that I down own or use notation software today! Since 1998, I own many upgrades & updates to MakeMusic's Finale program. I use to it create blank (and "reduced") band and orchestra staff paper. LOL! AND, I utilized a plug-in found in Finale 2011 as a compositional aide in creating instant "variations" (inversion, retrograde, etc.) of a melodic theme that I used in my last piece. But do I use a notation program as an the main process of composing music? No. It just seems all too awkward for me.

    When I take the time to sit down and actually compose music (which has been rare these past few years), that pencil goes right to manuscript paper. It's a tedious process but it still works well for me. I use a LOT of "short-hand", of course, which makes the process go by a bit more quickly. But seeing those notes on paper actually helps me develop the piece. Being able to actually touch the paper also seems helpful, too. When I'm in the later stages of writing the piece, I like being able to refer back to "page 5" when I'm on "page 25" of the score to explore varying an already stated orchestral idea. Using "Pencil to Manuscript" paper generally helps me explore NEW ideas rather than the "same old, same old" that I often find myself using over and over again, especially when I compose off the top of my head (without the use of manuscript paper). For example, I'm able to explore "different" harmonic voicings and chord structures this way. I'm also able to SEE areas within a score where some kind of contrapuntal movement can be used to help further develop the piece. For me, I liken the blank manuscript paper to a blank canvass for the artistic painter. "A dab of blue here and a dab of yellow there" for the painter translates into "a melodic pattern using these instruments here while using this harmonic structure using another set of instruments there". The visual found in the blank manuscript paper ultimately seems to help me create the sound that will be heard by the listener.

    I can't see how using a notation software program can be helpful for me as I go through the process of composing music. Whenever I do use the notation program, it's used at the very end of the "creative process" so that I can create the score and instrumental parts that will ultimately be read by other musicians. Yet, it is obvious for many of YOU that the notation program is not only your main way of composing music, but that it has become an important part of YOUR creative process too. I guess that at some point I want to explore this process.

    Please, share how using the notation program has become an important part of YOUR creative process. How do you use it when writing music? Or, do you use the old "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" as I do??

    Respectfully. . .

    Music and humor are healthy for the soul.

  2. #2

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    This is a great thread, Ted! I can really appreciate what you had to say.

    I go back to the early 80's as well from when I finished my degree in Music Education. I go back to the time when, as you said, there was nothing available but pencil/pen and manuscript. I used to love copying music out that I had written. I could look at this and say, "I did this!" Back in the 80's I did copywork for parts for recording studios. I honestly don't miss those days of staying up for 36 hours straight copying parts out for studio musicians. It was grueling work and the pay was not all that good. But if you said No just once, you might never be called back again.

    The biggest change that happened for me with regard to music notation and my interest was when I was hired by Hal Leonard Corporation in 1990 as a music engraver. That was my first exposure to music software designed for creating printed music. We had three systems back then: a Synclavier, which I used, Amadeus (out of Germany, which HL paid huge royalties to use), and Score. At home I was still using paper and pencil. The only computer I owned was a Radio Shack Color Computer. Best it could do was games. However, I did have a music composition program for it called Lyra. Extremely primitive. It could only play 8 parts at a time. But you know what? It was midi! It actually allowed me to plug into a small synthesizer I owned and it worked. It was all synth sounds, but it worked. I even had notes on the screen!

    Anyway, back at Hal Leonard we finally got the first versions of Finale for the Mac. We used to say back then that Finale did a lot of things "not very well." I went to the last NAMM show my first year there that was in Chicago in June. I was in heaven seeing all the stuff there, though I was told it was much smaller than it used to be. I looked at all the other music engraving software that a lot of vendors had. I remember Music Printer Plus. As I recall it was touting how it could "play" music as well as print it. Kind of an early version of what Finale is today. But it's gone now, along with a lot of other music software that popped up back then.

    I am always using keeping a blank sheet of manuscript paper hanging around all the time. If I get an idea of something, I have to write it down on whatever I can find, sometimes a paper napkin at a restaurant. I'm sure many of you have done that.

    But Finale has become my "go to program" when it comes to composition. Yes, I can still write music out as you do and certainly applaud you for doing just that. For me, Finale has helped me to visualize what I want and where I'm going. I am not a keyboardist. I can't play very well at all. When I was writing stuff in the 80's, it was grueling listening to me play the music I wrote because I just never had keyboard chops. But I understand you when you mentioned "visualizing the music on the page." I could certainly do that. When I finally got proficient in Finale, it was nice to find out the music I did on paper sounded better than I thought it would when I put it into Finale. Not everyone needs to be proficient at keyboard to write incredible music. My former professor from college James Curnow is not a keyboard player. But he had written literally hundreds of works for high school and college concert bands and the Salvation Army. He owns his own music publishing company in Kentucky, and has had a working relationship with Hal Leonard for over 20 years. His works have won awards all over the world.

    I think it comes down to what tools help you the most. Finale helps me to visualize what I want and helps so much with the creative process to the point I can't imagine not using it from beginning to the end. When I transcribed Howard Hanson's orchestral Symphony No. 3 to wind ensemble, Finale was a God-send to both visualizing and hearing the changes I made. Finding substitutions for the strings was the biggest challenge. Finale helped in many ways. But really it is, in the end, a tool. Many people here never look at a notation program. They go right to a DAW and that's where their expertise lies. I have heard incredible works done strictly in DAWs. Listen to the 2012 Garritan Christmas CD. There are more than a few that were done only in a DAW.

    Bottom line for me is I don't want to limit myself to any one medium for composing. I just recently started to understand and use Sonar and I can't tell you how incredible an experience it's been to go from creating the notes in Finale to producing music that sounds even better. It's a creative process, but it is a process. And we all have to figure out what works for us. I hope you will continue to use paper and pencil. I also hope you will explore the wonders of adding notes in Finale and hearing what it is you are seeing. It's really worth exploring!

    Gary A.
    Serenity Musician Productions (Gary A.)

    Lenovo ThinksStation S30, Windows 10 Professional 64-bit, 20 gig ram, 2 terabyte hd., M-Audio Fast Track, Finale25, Sonar Professional

  3. #3
    Senior Member rwayland's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    California Redwoods

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    Well, I look upon the use of computers in composing much as I look at the use of typewriters and word processors in literary works. They are tools. I learned to use the computer music programs for the same reason I learned to type back in 1945. It is easier on arthritic fingers, and I can read it later. I learned BASIC and was able to create music on the TRS 80 and Commodore 64. The C64 had a music program, rather crude, limited to 4 voices. The first decent notation program was SCORE, which was and is quite good, but klutzy to use. According to Leland Smith, the creator, it was used by all the major publishing houses except Henle, and they eventually began using it. It probably vanished because it was never adapted for Mac or Windows. I still have it, but no longer use it.

    After some experimentation, I began using Cakewalk (renamed Sonar) about 20 years ago, and still use it for composing and playback. I find the music roll view useful in editing, primarily in editing levels. For most purposes, I use the staff view, and can hear the notes as I enter, and playback any segment at will. I can use my computer keyboard for input, but it will be monotone, and need considerable editing, or I can use my midi controller keyboard for input, either live or step time, which produces better results. The staff view shows me what I will eventually achieve in Sibelius, but the score is not one that I would show off.!

    It is a tremendous advantage, being able to move a passage to a different place, or copy it elsewhere in a new key, transpose, etc. It saves much effort and time, and the effect is immediately made clear. It makes my composing much easier and the result much more legible, and I can play back instrumental parts easily. It does not make my composing any better, just easier to view and hear!!!

    Once completed, the score is then imported by Sibelius and and there is my score ready for final editing. The big drawback is that there are no expression marks. So I must add them, which can be a bit tedious. But overall, this system works well for me,even though it seems the reverse of what most composers use.

    I must add that I nearly always start with a brief pencil sketch of an idea that comes to me while playing the piano, or while falling asleep or while awaiting my turn at the doctor's office. Very brief, very sketchy.

    This morning is a good example of why the computer use is good for me. I am so stiff that I can barely move, but fingers are functioning well, so I can type decently, but have not yet tried the piano, which will be rough for the first few minutes.
    Then I will think about going to the grocer's.


  4. #4

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    Richard & Gary -

    It is very interesting to read your histories on how you both adapted into, and apparently embraced, the computer age of music notation and production. It was also very interesting to read your professional history and growth in the music field as well.

    Programs like Cakewalk (now Sonar) and Finale seem to be recognized as essential tools of the trade, now. I'm pretty familiar with the audio/sequencing programs (I own early version of Cakewalk and Sonar, early and up-to-date versions of Logic, one mid-version of Cubase and, most recently, the later versions of Digital Performer); I know my way around these programs comfortably enough to make adequate sounding music. But I never took the time to familiarize myself with the notation programs (in my case, Finale) to use them throughout the entire creative process of writing music. After reading your posts, my interest is now charged to at least learn Finale to its fullest potential and attempt to use it from beginning to end of the process of composing.

    Cheers. . .

    Music and humor are healthy for the soul.

  5. #5
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Oct 2009
    Canyon, Texas, USA

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    I also have used Finale to notate music since Finale was first published. (I have a black Coda Music coffee cup beside me right now that I got from attending one of Coda Music's first training sessions in Minnesota.) But, I used Finale to replace the task of copying an ink score and parts. I only used Finale's playback to help proofread a composition. The sound of the instruments in my head was vastly superior to the sounds Finale produced.

    However, most of my composition students liked to compose at the computer. I decided I should learn to do this so that I might be of greater help to them. I found an approach that worked very well for me and I still use it today. The addition of the Garritan sounds was a giant step forward for my work because the playback could actually be enjoyable and not simply obnoxious.

    What works well for me is to work rapidly in Finale on a "sketch" that might include 2 to 7 staves of music. I put in what comes to mind and some written notes for scoring, etc. I set Finale to not put whole rests in empty bars so that I can print the sketch and work with pencil and paper. When the sketch is complete, or well worked out but not finished, I add the staves for the actual score below the sketch. I set these up with the correct instruments, clefs, etc. and use Finale's "staff set" capabilities to allow me to easily drag and drop selected music from the sketch into the final score. When this is complete I save a copy in case I need to return to the sketch and delete the sketch from the top lines of the score. At this point I usually print the score and work on it with a pencil. I then complete the score, proofread multiple times, and eventually format the parts and print everything.

    Recently I have enjoyed saving a copy of the score as a special score for playback purposes and trying to work with the capabilities of the Garritan instruments to get an aesthetically pleasing playback. I have been happiest with moving much of this work to a DAW. But, especially with small ensembles, I found I could get good results by staying in Finale. This is the procedure that I used for Good Christian Men Rejoice on the Christmas album.


  6. #6

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    I have not posted here in a long time but this seems like a good place to jump in. I use pencil and paper to create a sketch and then work in Sonar. I am not a pianist so I have to step enter the notes and rely on a humanization script to randomly alter the start and stop times of notes to more accurately simulate human playback. I also draw in controller data by hand for velocity and the mod wheel expression available in GPO 4. Working in PRV was suggested to me long ago by Randy...thanks Randy. But of course I am stubborn and had to find my own way. I am constantly working back and forth between Piano Roll View and Staff View. I need PRV to draw in the controller data but I still need the intuitiveness of staff view for orchestrating passages from my sketch. I do not claim to be a skillfull orchestrator but I am improving as I experiment more. I posted a piece here once long ago and am a bit embarrassed by it. Hopefully soon I will post something newer after I have had a chance to participate in the forum a bit more. So all that to say that notation/DAW software is indispensable to my work process.

  7. #7

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    Hi RichardMc:

    Seems to me that you should continue your pencil and paper routine and maybe then enter what you have into a "notation" program (a dedicated one. Notation options in DAWs are not that easy to work with from my experience). For example, pencil-and-paper in a work session, then enter that into a notation program like Finale or Sibelius. Keep adding to that session with additional sessions in the same manner, perhaps using less and less pencil and paper; but, if not, use the same routine. Then, make a Standard MIDI File of your work in the notation program and import it into Sonar. A little editing will be necessary, but you will have the bulk of your composition ported over so you can use Sonar to complete it, add effects and mix.

    If you don't have a dedicated notation program, maybe you might want to purchase one in the future. From what you said about your work ethic, I think you would be really happy working in Finale. There is a little hill to climb at first, but a lot of it is intuitive and once you have it down, you will feel more confidence with your compositional tools.

    Just my opinion after reading about your work process.

    Happy writing,

    Jack Cannon--MacBook Pro (2015, 13") GPO4/5, JABB3, Auth. STEINWAY, YAMAHA CFX, Gofriller CELLO, Stradivari VIOLIN, COMB2, WORLD, HARPS, PIPE ORGANS, FINALE 25.5, DORICO 1.2.10, Mac Pro 2.66 GHz CPU, 8 GB RAM, DP 9.51, MOTU Traveler, MOTU Micro Express, MacBook Pro (2012, 13") 2.2 Ghz CPU, 8 GB RAM.

  8. #8

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    Thank you for the suggestion. I actually have a notation program and was using that for some time. Since at this time I do not have any real expectation of having any of my work performed I do not really have to be concerned with engraving. However, I could use my notation program for that purpose in the event it became necessary. I need to hear the rendering as I am going along which is why I work in PRV. It is where I work with dynamics and expression such as they are. I actually sketch the entire piece before bringing it to SONAR. But I am always interested in the work methods of those with more experience than myself. When you talk about sessions it sounds like you will work on part of a piece with pencil and paper and then move to your notation program/DAW and then work on the next section with pencil and paper?

  9. #9

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    My first notation program was the Deluxe Music Construction Set. For me it was wonderful to use with my first Mac - a Mac SE with 2 floppy drives. I finally got an Ehman 70MB external HD and thought I would NEVER fill it!

    I have used Finale forever and I could not do what I do without it.
    For simple lead sheets, I suppose I could do fine for simple songs with manuscript paper.
    But when I do orchestral stuff - forget it.
    I just simply cannot imagine all of that in my head.
    I wrote a 2.5 -hour Broadway-style musical on commission in 2007 - 2009 - Rivertown for the bicentennial of Madison, Indiana. I ABSOLUTELY could not have done that without having Finale constantly playing back what I was writing.
    Without Finale I would be terribly handicapped in trying to write more complex stuff. I am more a an auditory learner anyway, so that makes sense to me.
    MacPro 2.66 - Tiger & Snow Leopard / 16GB RAM / several TB of HD space/ Garritan Libraries / EWQLSO Platinum PLAY / Omnisphere/ Kontakt 2 & 3 / Finale 2010 /DP5/ a VERY patient wife!

  10. #10

    Re: The Composing Process: "Pencil to Manuscript Paper" verses using notation softwar

    I, too, choose to write everything on paper. Later, I may or may not load the data into my notation program (Overture SE) depending on whether or not I want to print it out for publication as a score or produce it as an audio recording.

    For me, the understanding and practice of musical notation in general is extremely important. As one who has learned music through independent study, I realized early on the importance of being as well versed as possible in the inner workings of our musical language.

    My preference for the pencil to paper method mostly relates to two things—security and mobility. When I first started composing through music notation in the mid 1980s, I used to compose directly on my Commodore Amiga using Deluxe Music Construction Set. Although that method of composition facilitated expeditious creation, I soon experienced the horror of lost data due to computer/software glitches, failures, etc. One quickly learns how ephemeral one’s inspiration can be when what one has just completed suddenly disappears into the ether due to the fallible nature of man and his machines. The other reason for my use of pencil is that it facilitates composition while on the move, especially through the natural world, where I find my greatest inspiration.

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